Lento by Howard Skempton

Lento, by experimental British composer, Howard Skempton (1947 – present), was commissioned by the BBC Symphony Orchestra in 1990.

The piece uses precomposed chance-arranged sequences of chords as the harmonic basis. This is known as aleatoric music – Skempton composed much of his music in this way. Although the strings dominate the composition, the middle section is scored for woodwind and the brass are used sparingly.

You can read an interview with Howard Skempton on the Oxford University Press website.

Aleatoric comes from the Latin word alea, meaning “dice” and refers to music where an element is left to chance. This could mean that part of the music’s realisation is determined by its performers. There are often a limited number of possibilities.

Lento by Howard Skempton

Listen For…

  • The main opening ‘theme’ (up to 00:20) – can you hear when this is repeated?
  • The music is scored for strings, woodwind, brass and percussion, although it almost entirely consists of string-writing.
  • At 06:11 listen for the brass, followed by lower woodwind and then upper woodwind.
  • The timpani are only used twice in this piece – can you hear where they enter the music?

The rhythm is limited to mainly crotchets and minims and the tempo remains constant throughout.

As you continue to listen, consider how Skempton has effectively maintained momentum and direction in the music despite limiting the variation of different elements.

Things to consider

  • How could you use the element of ‘chance’ in your own composition? For further listening and examples see this Wikipedia article.
  • Could you create a number of sections scored for different orchestral sections and alternate them?
  • Compose an 8-bar chord sequence, experimenting with how the triads are arranged and creating a slow rate of harmonic change.